A challenge to Filipinos

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.20

In his lecture on September 2 entitled "Creating Paths for Sustainable Citizen Vigilance In a Young Democracy," Ramon Magsaysay awardee Koul Panha of Cambodia stressed the importance of citizens participation -- not just in safeguarding the electoral process, but more importantly, in monitoring the performance of elected officials -- to ensure that democracy is alive and working. Mr. Panha is the Executive Director of Cambodia's Committee for Free and Fair Elections, a non-partisan network of civil society organizations that work for free and fair elections and good governance in Cambodia.

COMFREL's birth and its goals and activities are a response to the numerous challenges that Cambodia has been facing in the slow
road to democratization, which began only roughly 20 years ago. In his lecture, Mr. Panha outlined some of these challenges:
Dominance of one political party, not just in the executive and legislative branches, but also in the judiciary, law enforcement, armed forces, and public administration. Though Mr. Panha looks positively at the participation of numerous political parties in Cambodia's elections in their local councils (called communes or sangkats), he laments that the formula for allocating seats does not encourage small parties, and instead favor the dominant political party.
No "clear, democratic procedures" in choosing the candidates to be fielded by parties
Lack of access to information on campaign finance
Use of state resources in election campaigns
Lack of will to acknowledge and resolve election violations expeditiously and justly
Marginalization of women
Little free flow of information and government censorship of information, discouraging public participation in discussions on issues
Weak institutions and limited mechanisms for accountability contributing to high levels of corruption
Partiality of institutions such as the courts and the election commission, the military and the police, resulting to mistrust and confidence among the general public
Use by the government of ill-defined laws to silence critics
In response to these challenges, COMFREL set out to achieve their goals of helping create an informed and favorable climate for free and fair elections, and encouraging citizens to participate in democratic governance and decision making in order to implement reforms and increase accountability of elected officials.

During election periods, COMFREL deploys long-term and short-term local observers throughout Cambodia to monitor the conduct of the elections. It also conducts parallel vote tabulation/quick count that is also used to verify the announced election results and detect possible fraud patterns. COMFREL also conducts surveys to verify and assess the accuracy of the voters list, and does voters education through production and distribution of voters education materials, among other activities.
Mr. Panha also described COMFREL's activities in between elections. One of the most significant among their projects is Parliamentary Watch, for which COMFREL deploys a team to monitor the field visits of members of parliament, and another team to sit on National Assembly sessions to observe the activities, pronouncements and actions of the members of parliament. COMFREL also helps organize local public forums, encouraging citizens to engage elected officials in dialogues. Some of the participants became members of local watchdogs that monitor performance of elected officials at the local level. COMFREL also has a radio program through which they disseminate information and gather public support for reforms advocacy.

The Cambodian experience in democratization is strikingly similar to the Philippine experience after EDSA, and Mr. Panha's and COMFREL's response to the challenges are not unlike those of Filipino civil society organizations' like Namfrel. In a dialogue with local election monitoring organizations also on September 2, Mr. Panha acknowledged that Namfrel and its activities with regard election monitoring and seeking accountability from elected officials was what inspired him to do the same in Cambodia.

However, more significantly, it is also clear that most of the challenges that are besetting the young democracy that is Cambodia are still very much present in the Philippines. The recognition given Mr. Panha, as well as COMFREL's work, are a reminder to Filipinos that there is still much work to be done to nurture and safeguard democracy in the country, and that the only way Filipinos could move forward and overcome the challenges is to be informed, to unite, and to demand accountability from public officials and to ensure that democratic principles are upheld.